Friday, July 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Falcons clobber Packers to reach Super Bowl for second time

ATLANTA — Each time Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan zipped the football or placed a pass as soft as a lullaby into his receivers' hands in the end zone during Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the chants began in the rafters and rolled down like thunder at the condemned Georgia Dome.

"M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!"

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got most of the attention and was, as his State Farm commercial suggests, on fire for the second half of the year and into the playoffs.

But Ryan has been the best player and, dare we say, the best quarterback all season. And Sunday, he added something that has been missing from his considerable resume: a Super Bowl appearance.

Ryan passed for 392 yards, four touchdowns and ran — okay, stumbled — for another score as the Falcons built a stunning 31-0 lead and held on to beat the Packers 44-21 to reach Super Bowl LI in Houston on Feb. 5.

After the game, the last played in the soon-to-be-replaced Georgia Dome, Ryan, 1-4 in the postseason before this season, was asked if he had gotten his Super Bowl quarterback card.

"No, I feel exactly the same," said Ryan, a favorite to be named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press this week.

The Falcons (13-5) won in the most Matt Ryan kind of way, reading things out and spreading the ball around by completing passes to nine receivers, including three who caught touchdowns.

Julio Jones scored twice to put the game away. He made a toe-tapping back-shoulder grab in the end zone to end the first half, then shoved cornerback LaDarius Gunter and stiff-armed Damarious Randall on his way to a 73-yard TD to start the second half.

"He's a beast, an absolute stud, and I've been so lucky to play with him for as long as I have," Ryan said of Jones, who led all receivers with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores despite missing two practices last week with foot injuries. "He was impressive (Sunday). I know he wasn't feeling his best, but he's a warrior. He went out and competed really, really well."

At 31, Ryan had to wonder if he would ever get to this game again. He had been known more for playoff failures until this season. He has been one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in the league but wore his playoff record like an albatross when the season began, including a home loss to the 49ers in the NFC title game in the 2012 season.

Enter head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan two seasons ago, who helped Ryan get to the next level. Ryan admits it hasn't always been easy to be patient.

"Yeah, I mean it's one of those things, you can't lose belief or confidence," Ryan said. "One thing about this league, week to week you can get humbled very quickly. I mean, there's so many good players, so many good teams. And learning what works best for you personally and what works best for your team has taken time for sure. But it's one of those things, I always felt we would get to this point where we would have an opportunity to play in this game and we're there."

Atlanta lost at home in Week 1 to the Bucs; the only time a team has lost to Tampa Bay during its Super Bowl-winning season was New Orleans in 2009.

On Sunday, the Packers (12-7) got off to a horrendous start. Not only was their defense no match for Ryan and the Falcons, but they self-destructed. Kicker Mason Crosby, who had set a record with 23 successful field goals, pushed a 41-yarder wide right. Then trailing 10-0, fullback Aaron Ripkowski was stripped at the Atlanta 11 by cornerback Jalen Collins, who recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

"If you're not on, if you're making little mistakes like that, it's going to be tough to win against a really tough offense," said Rodgers, who passed for 287 yards and three TDs but was intercepted once and sacked twice.

The Falcons have made fast strides on defense. Quinn brought a great scheme with him from Seattle, and the Falcons added youth and speed in linebackers Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and safety and former Gator Keanu Neal — all rookies.

"We play defense here," Neal said.

But it's their offense and a suddenly unworldly quarterback in Ryan that makes them a formidable opponent in the Super Bowl.

"Our ultimate goal is still in front of us," Ryan said.

 
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